In the last blog post we talked about the basics of DIC benefits. Here we will explore further the two ways to establish entitlement to DIC.
The two ways to become entitled to DIC are:
- You show that the veteran’s death resulted in whole or in major part from a medical condition that is service-connected. This means that if the principal or contributory cause of death is a service-connected disability, entitlement to DIC is established.
- You show that the veteran had a service connected disability that was totally disabling for some period of time before the veteran died. Most of the time, the disability must have been totally disabling for the last ten years of the veteran’s life.
Let’s examine the first way.
The principal and contributory cause of death is usually listed on the death certificate. Whatever the disability, disease, injury that was the principal or contributory cause of death is, if it is service-connected, or qualifies as a service-connected condition, then the survivor is entitled to DIC.
The next question would be what is considered the principal or contributory cause of death?
The following rules apply for whether a service-connected condition should be considered a principal or contributory cause of death:
- The service-connected disability will be considered the principal or primary cause of death when that disability, either by itself or together with some other condition, was the immediate or underlying cause of death (or was etiologically related to the death).
- The service-connected disability will be considered a contributory cause of death if the service connected disability:
- contributed substantially or materially to the death,
- combined with something else to cause death
- or aided or lent assistance to the production of death
- Basically, it can’t have just casually shared in producing death with another condition. There must have been a causal connection between the service connected disability and death.
So if the veteran is service-connected for a disability, and they die because of that disability, or that disability was a substantial cause of death, the death is service connected. It is important to understand that the rating of the service-connected disability does not matter in this case. Even if the condition was evaluated at 100%, if it did not play a part in contributing to the veteran’s death, it is not service connected.
Minor service-connected disabilities will not be considered to have contributed to death if:
- Death was due to an unrelated disability, or
- The disability is not progressive, or
- The disability does not materially affect a vital organ, involve muscular or skeletal functions, or other vital body functions.
There has to be an “unbroken chain between the service-connected disability and the condition that caused the veteran’s death.” For example, if the veteran is service-connected for PTSD but died of cirrhosis, it can be said that the veteran’s PTSD caused his alcoholism which contributed to or aggravated his cirrhosis, which caused his death. Therefore, it could be found that the veteran’s service connected disability contributed substantially and materially to the veteran’s death. Then it would be service-connected.
There are certain loopholes for service-connected conditions that affect vital organs.
General rule: Service-connected condition must have been primary or contributory cause of death.
Exception: Service-connected conditions that affect vital organs may be considered contributory causes of death, even if they are not related to the primary cause of death. This is because they may have caused debilitating effects in the body and made the veteran more susceptible to whatever was the primary cause of death. If the service-connected condition affected vital organs and was 100% disabling, the VA will assume the condition was debilitating, and likely service-connect the death.
General rule: The VA will not consider a condition to have accelerated death.
Exception: If the condition affected a vital organ and was progressive or debilitating, and death was anticipated, the VA should consider the condition as being so severe to have accelerated death.
There is still another way to service-connect a veteran’s death. If a veteran dies in service, it is concluded that the death was service connected. A rating decision won’t even be issued if the death resulted from disease or armed conflict. This includes when they are missing, or death is presumed by the service department. There are exceptions to this however, in the following situations the VA will issue a formal rating decision determining whether or not death was service connected:
- If the veteran died in service because of suicide
- If the veteran died from disease that occurred during initial six months of active service
- If there is reasonable probability that the death was due to misconduct by the veteran
We are not done with DIC yet. We still have to cover the other way to establish entitlement to DIC, when the veteran was totally disabled before death.